The 2020-21 men’s college basketball season was unlike any other. Just like the rest of the athletic world, college basketball had to adjust to a worldwide pandemic. The NCAA, the individual leagues, and each team adjusted and adhered to ever-changing COVID protocols to complete the season. Last Word on Hoops looks to tell the stories of some of these teams. Our series begins with the South Dakota basketball program.
The Coyotes have been a Division I program since 2009-10 and members of the Summit League since the 2011-12 season. The program has slowly been ascending towards the top of the league, with a winning record in conference play four of the last five seasons. That stretch has included three 20-win seasons, and a fourth could’ve been possible this past season if not for the scheduling limitations of a pandemic season. Todd Lee just completed his third season at the helm in Vermillion. He has continued the success started under current Utah coach Craig Smith. I caught up with Lee to get his take on how the Coyotes fought through their own COVID challenges to make program history.
The Story of the 2020-21 South Dakota Basketball Program
No Off-Season or Pre-Season
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to sports across the world. Leagues and institutions slowly started to piece together how to return to competition safely. However, that meant preparing in a way that had never been done before, and the Coyotes were no different.
“Our guys weren’t on campus over the summer,” said Lee, “so we didn’t have the summer workouts going in. We did have some local players around, but we weren’t doing team workouts. It made it really hard, especially with a lot of new guys.”
South Dakota had 11 new guys to be exact, with nine of them having never played at the Division I level before. Building up team chemistry is imperative in figuring out how a team can start to compete together, especially with such an overhauled roster. Even as athletics programs at the university figured out how they could safely conduct team activities, the basketball team couldn’t get consistency due to their own COVID outbreak.
“Early in the fall it hit us pretty hard,” Lee stated. “We had a number of players that went into quarantine or did have COVID. Three of our players had a lot of quarantine days. We had one kid who had 52 days of quarantine, and a number of other situations like that.”
The Coyotes were one of many programs that had to handle COVID protocols, but it was important to put the health of everyone at the forefront.
“We did a really good job with our administration, the training staff, and the school in handling COVID,” coach said. “After about the middle of November we didn’t have one positive test on our staff or our team.”
Tipping the Ball
The start of the 2020-21 season was pushed back two weeks by the NCAA in hopes that it would help teams in dealing with the pandemic while playing. However, that was about the only thing set from a scheduling standpoint. Team schedules that are usually finalized by July or August weren’t even finalized when the season began.
“We were in an MTE with Iowa and had a couple of home games in that,” Coach Lee said, “and some other home games early. Because the season got pushed back we ended up losing all those games.”
That scheduling uncertainty was exasperated by the lack of a proper off-season and pre-season.
“You’re trying to build some confidence and get some wins early in the season,” stated coach. “With us losing those home games, that made it difficult. We ended up playing our first games in a tournament at Kansas State, and ended up playing two NCAA Tournament teams in Colorado and Drake right out of the gate.”
The South Dakota basketball team ended up losing their first five games and six of their first seven. It’s not how you want to start the season, but the Coyotes were still just trying to find their footing.
“The first few games felt like you were playing a scrimmage,” Lee said. “You usually play at least one scrimmage and then an exhibition game, and that’s what it felt like those first few games. We weren’t ready to play from a physicality standpoint. They hadn’t been practicing and spent a lot of time in quarantine, and the guys said they had no wind.”
However, the Coyotes didn’t let that start get them down, and a change was on the horizon.
The Turning Point
To get games played, South Dakota basketball took an unusual approach. The Coyotes agreed to play in a small tournament that involved their other Dakota conference foes. Even though they only went 1-2, Lee said he could start to see a spark with his group.
“We were able to practice together and string games together where we had our full team,” Lee stated, “and that’s when we started to play much better. Once we got past that tournament it felt like our guys were getting much more in shape, and we did a really good job after that.”
In fact, they played so well that they made program history at the Division I level. The Coyotes started league play 9-0 and won 10 games in a row overall, both firsts at the highest level of college basketball. Furthermore, South Dakota led the league from the first day of conference play right up until their last game.
“We were picked fifth in the league and had a lot of new players,” coach stated. “We lost 80 percent of our scoring from the year before. So, to be able to play that well…while dealing with COVID and the newness of the team, our guys did a great job.”
Adjusting to the League Schedule
The Summit League was one of many that decided to play back-to-back league games. The goal was to try and limit COVID issues during the season, another unique aspect of a unique season.
“I think from our standpoint it obviously worked out really well,” Lee said. “I thought being able to prepare an entire week for one opponent kind of helped us in the way that we prepare. The second night you have to make adjustments, but you can’t make too many to confuse your guys. We’ve got really good coaches in our league and if you don’t make adjustments, if they see it the second night, they’re just too good.”
It certainly helped to have guys like Stanley Umude and A.J. Plitzuweit leading the way. Umude averaged 21.5 points per game on the season, and Plitzuweit wasn’t far behind at 19 points per game. However, they were both able to get teammates involved too, with Umude averaging three assists per game and Plitzuweit close to four per game.
“They were both really consistent offensively,” coach stated. “A.J. really grew into that role as the season went on and became our leading scorer during league play. Everyone really played off them. To have two guys that can score the ball, run stuff at different positions, and make free throws, that’s a lot of points, and they were very consistent as far as scoring every night.”
Reflecting on the Season
South Dakota’s season ended short of their goal in the semifinals of the Summit League Tournament. Furthermore, just a few weeks before that, Plitzuweit went down with a devastating season-ending knee injury. However, Lee had nothing but praise for the young man and his determination as he begins to rehab back.
“I’ve been doing this for 30+ years, and this is the worst injury in the history of college basketball,” Lee said. “He was playing better than anybody in the league. We had Oral Roberts here and he had 37 and Max Abmas had 36, and we beat them.”
“He was playing at the highest level of anybody in the league, so for him to get hurt, if there’s one kid that can come back from an injury like that, it’s AJ, because he’s tough.”
Coach Lee hopes to have Plitzuweit fully healthy in time for the 2022-23 season. In the meantime, he was extremely pleased with how well his group came together throughout all the challenges they faced.
“I learned that we have great kids that only cared about winning,” Lee stated. “That’s the biggest thing. We didn’t have any energy vampires. We had guys that cared about winning and the team.”
With a bulk of this group having a season of playing together under their belt, the future is bright for the South Dakota basketball program. The Coyotes persevered and raised the bar in 2020-21. The program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament should be imminent.